It is Monday, February 10th, 2020, at 9:17am, and I am wondering why Ocean Vuong hates me.
The truth is, Ocean Vuong, the writer of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, doesn’t hate me. He doesn’t even know me.
But I’ve decided I know him. I know exactly who he is. He is who I want to be, or well, he has probably nothing to do with who I think he is, but still, in my mind, he is the embodiment of what I want: hardwood floored New York City Apartments, Jazz and Classical Music, windows with fire-escapes to sit on, conversations about art and writing and music, about life and philosophy and books.
He has books. I know it. Lots of books and amazing chairs to sit in and he is smart and respected and people want to sit with him and listen to what he has to say. And if he didn’t hate me, or if he knew me, we would sit, we would be friends and drink tea and my life would look exactly how I know it is supposed to look.
Exactly how it doesn’t look. Except I do have hardwood floors. And I have a record player that plays lots of Milt Jackson, and I have books everywhere…so what is it that I’m missing?
What is this feeling?
I have everything I’ve ever wanted. I have hardwood floors. I have a house, rundown, in desperate need of work but still: a house, a 1910 craftsman, in Hollywood. I don’t own it, but it’s mine. I have a boyfriend who loves me. I have readers who read me. I’ve published a book. I get to travel. I have chairs to sit in, though I wish they were more comfortable…the point is…I have the life I am jealous of.
And yet I still feel…lost.
I keep coming back to this gnawing question: Who the Fuck am I?
I am 51 years old. I am Queer. I am HIV Positive. I am a writer. I am a son and a brother and a partner and a friend and yet…who the fuck am I? How did I end up here, as this particular Jeff Leavell?
I’m sorry if you find yourself wondering when I’m going to talk about getting pissed on, or my philosophical stance on fisting, or poly-open-monogamous relationships, or all the ways and times I’ve been fucked.
I’m sorry if you came here to get your dick hard.
Sometimes I have these visions of the Jeff Leavell I want to be right now: I am walking the canals of Amsterdam, or climbing through the winding hill streets of some ancient City, and I am always alone. I am happy to be alone. I am on an adventure. I find a café and I sit, and I read. Next to me men are playing chess. A mother and daughter share a carafe of wine. It is always white wine. And the sun is out.
Or I am in Paris, crossing the Seine, wandering slowly toward Shakespeare & Company. I will sit in a chair and I will read. I will pretend that I live just up the hill, in the Latin Quarter.
I will not be afraid. I will no longer wonder who I am: because I will be exactly that man, right there, sitting in the large chair in the famous book store in Paris, and I will know, without a doubt that when I leave I will be swallowed up in the beauty of the City…and later that night I will meet a group of writers and poets and artists and we will eat dinner at a small restaurant and we will talk about what we are working on, about life, we will talk about the world.
I am so consumed with fear right now. I am so consumed with self-doubt. My skin itches so bad I want to claw my way out. My brain is on fire: my thoughts racing.
I want to write a fantasy for you: some decadent adventure I had while in Berlin, getting fucked so hard I almost forgot my name, or about gang bangs in Madrid, or falling in love in the rain in London…I want to write about anything but this moment, right now, where I am:
In Hollywood, on a Monday morning, struggling to find that word, any fucking word, just a word that will explain to you exactly what I am feeling.
Do you ever wonder how you will pay your phone bill? Or if you will be evicted because you can no longer pay your rent? Do you ever wonder if everyone you love will finally leave you, all alone, with nothing? Do you ever think that you missed every opportunity, that you fucked up so bad that now you will never get to live the life you always dreamed of?
Because I am terrified. That is what this feeling is: this feeling that my life is slowly dripping away, floating passed me and I am not participating, I am no longer a character in my life: just a bystander.
What if this feeling is no longer the fear of failure, but failure itself?
And then what? I am a 51-year-old, HIV Postive, Queer, failure?
And Jesus Fucking Christ, it’s just Monday, 10:21 am…and I’m already here, drowning in this self-doubt, this fear, this abject failure.
Do you ever have that feeling? What do you do in those moments when you’re so fucking scared that you’re immobilized?
Because if you do ever feel this way, lost, unsure, like your life is passing you by, that you’ve somehow missed the person you were supposed to be and you have no power: you’re not alone.
I’m right here with you.
So today, this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to play a Stan Getz album, Focus, and I’m going to write until I can’t, until the fear becomes so intolerable I might scream, and then I will take my little dog Paco and go for a walk, and maybe later I will meet a friend for tea, and I will try to remember that some days are just like this. Some weeks. Some months.
But I do have power. And that the writing will save me.
And that I’m not alone.
My father used to tell me, “Fear is just the lie you tell yourself so you don’t have to get up and actually do something. You can spend the next ten years afraid, or you can take ten minutes and put your shoes on and go do something. If you’re lucky you’re going to be 65 one day. And you will have either done the thing you’ve dreamed of or not. Which one would you rather be true at 65?” And my other favorite, “Worrying is just like praying for what you don’t want.”
And my mother once said, “I’d rather see you fail at something you love than succeed at something you hate.”
I’m going to commit to a walk. And to writing a blog post once a week. To finishing the projects I’ve started so that at 65 I actually can look back and say: yeah, I did that. Regardless of the outcome: I did it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. I know this isn’t my normal kind of post (I promise, I’ll get your dick hard again soon). And I’d love to hear your dreams. Even if they terrify you. Even if they seem impossible.
And I apologize to Ocean Vuong. I have no idea what kind of life you have, and there is no reason to think you hate me. He did write a fucking beautiful book, though. You should go read it if you haven’t.
4 thoughts on “Who Am I? Or Why Ocean Vuong Hates Me”
Hello Jeff, Thank you for this post. I completely understand and I am able to relate to what you are saying 100 percent. I have recently made a decision to follow my dreams of being content creator, I have made a huge leap at a job because I believe that it will be a great start at a career. Needless to say things are not really working out as I expected it, Its been months and all I can think of is how will I pay my rent, how will I pay my bills? How will I put food on the table, there are time when I cannot sleep, I would be in my bed, in the dark crying and screaming all alone, beating my self up because I believe I have made a foolish and stupid decision and I am paying the price for it. But then I remember that everything happens for a reason. We have a saying in my native tongue “If you want good yuh nose afi run” Which is basically saying that for you to achieve great things, you have to suffer a little, you have to fail before you can succeed, just stay strong. Trust me there are nights and days where I would be in such a dark place I think I might hurt myself. But I still remain strong. I am taking things one step at a time, I am being brave and doing what I love. Because only you can make your dream come through. Thanks for this post Jeff. Your writing has helped me alot, and I am currently on the 3rd reading of your book “Accidental Warlocks” It helps me to forget about all the problems I have, even if its just for a while. Keep strong Jeff.
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Thank you. You made my day
I am right there with you, in every conceivable way. I have the life I always envied, and it’s one most of my friends envy. Looking at it from the outside I can see it’s pretty damned great. I still feel hollow, alone, and lost. I don’t know who I am or what I want. Maybe it’s exactly this and I can’t recognize it.
I’m back in college at age 46, finishing a degree because last year I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t know anymore, though. I’m not sure what, if anything, I actually DO know. Well, except for the certainty that something is still missing. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I am the piece missing in my life and I need to find a way to be more present in it, to claim it as my own.
You’re not alone, either, in any of this.
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I appreciate this and I’m glad you wrote it. Thank you.
At 61, I am not without anxiety. I also live a life that is full of blessings I can count off at a moment’s whim and many of them are very similar to yours. I am also a different individual. For example, I am a married gay man with a husband who lives with severe chronic depression and I therefore know that I do not myself suffer from depression, that I’m actually pretty fucking healthy.
He describes dread as his constant companion, kept at bay through a complex of strategies to live a good life and be happy which, thank god, he now does. I recognize his dread because I have it too, it’s just not as powerful in my life. It’s easier for me now to tell dread to fuck off and it actually does for a while.
I don’t know where your life is going and I only know the open narrative part of where it’s been. What I can tell you is something I frequently share with other people my age: Getting older comes with one really valuable gift: It gets easier to let go of the bullshit as the odds of life ending draw closer. It’s not arcane knowledge but it’s real and true. My life at 61 differs from my life at 51 in precisely this measure: I don’t give dread so much credence now because it truly is the bullshit I don’t have time for anymore.
What you describe sounds like anxiety out of control. You know… something like anxiety disorder. If you can look at your life and don’t see a reason to feel awful but you feel awful anyway and it’s taking up an outsized part of your consciousness, consider finding help.
My husband is a writer, by the way. I’m a writer too but very much a writer’s spouse and his depression and anxiety demand attention and care I can give. He’s as lucky to have me as I am to have him… but he knows he needs more than me and the work. It sounds like you have a lot of strategies for self care but the dread has you by the balls anyway.
As a reader and a fan, I urge you to consider adding some new strategies.
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